CIVIL WAR MEMORY
The Online Home of Kevin M. Levin
I found Bud Robertson’s comparison of the unfavorable prospects for the sesquicentennial, because of the nation’s current divisions, with the centennial quite strange, with no mention whatsoever that the centennial occurred during the Civil Rights movement. For David Blight, that was the central fact in remembering the centennial.
After listening to this again, it seems Robertson is talking about the planning of the centennial, before the Civil Rights movement fully exploded into the country’s consciousness.
Thanks so much for linking this, Kevin – it really strikes me that when Robertson and Freehling participated in the Centennial of the Civil War, they were very young men – where are our younger scholars taking an active role in this? Of course, at that time, men in their twenties were responsible for landing men on the moon! No one would give such responsibility to young people today. I will ever condemn the lack of a national prerogative on the Sesquicentennial. It’s going to be a big fizzle, led only by the extremes of either side, with very little educational or interpretive impact to people not of the eastern states. What then, is the future for Civil War studies?
I certainly understand where you are coming from, but I do take issue with your overall point. Unfortunately, the mainstream media will continue to highlight the extremes of Civil War remembrance, but it seems to me that there is a great deal of activity coming out of various institutions. In fact, I would wager that we will see much more overall activity than what was seen during the Centennial. The lack of a national commission doesn’t really bother me as it would only get bogged down in politics. The emphasis on local commemoration allows for individuals and groups to tailor their needs to their communities. We are seeing that all over Virginia. Finally, I can rattle off a short list of Civil War historians that are actively engaging in sesquicentennial events.
The sesquicentennial is not going to lead to the kind of renewed interest that followed the centennial nor should that serve as a lone marker of whether the next few years is a success.
Give us the opportunity and we’ll speak, but I’d wager that the producers of these videos sent out an e-mail blast to the usual suspects, and no young scholars. It’s the nature of the profession that those better established will have the podium, and those of us in the beginnings of our careers will be struggling to have our voices heard. In general, and especially in public history, we’re all having a tough time getting that podium because the folks inspired by the centennial are still firmly ensconced in the positions they obtained thirty and thirty-five years ago. Give us a microphone and we’ll talk your ear off, but until someone offers us the stage we can’t help out with any efficacy.
In one breath you ask “where are our younger scholars taking an active role in this?” and in the next you claim that “no one would give such responsibility to young people today.” It is this major disconnect, this distrust of us to do justice to the history, which keeps our voices out of the sesquicentennial. We are an ipod and youtube generation, but that doesn’t diminish our interest or scholarly aptitude.
I agree with Kevin to a point. A national commission organizing every event, as happened with the majority of the centennial celebrations, would be counterproductive in our grass-roots era. Dig through the centennial commission collection at the LOC in College Park sometime and take a look at the top-down approach and it’s deep fissures, as well as fundamental disonnect with today’s participatory culture. Local commissions have come up with some interesting and vastly different events than what was seen in the 1960s. However, I think the lack of a national commission is detrimental for PR and public awareness. A national commission could have worked as a clearinghouse for the local commissions, shunting them to media outlets and getting the word out about these local events on the national stage.
One minor correction to JM Rudy’s comment: the records of the Civil War Centennial Commission are held by the National Archives and Records Commission (Archives II) in College Park, MD, rather than the Library of Congress (LOC), with which NARA is often confused. They are two separate and distinct institutions.
Slip of the keyboard there, Mike… NARA and LOC roll off the fingers too quickly sometimes. Sorry.
For anyone else interested in studying the centennial, the commission’s records are within the Records of the NPS, RG 79. A finding aid is available at: http://www.nps.gov/history/history/hisnps/NPSarchives.htm
Apropos slips of the keyboard, I see I wrote “National Archives and Records Commission” when in fact it’s National Archives and Records Administration.
I think I got mis-read a bit – when I said no one would give young historians the job today, it wasn’t me decrying the historians at all (I’m what might still be considered a young historian), merely to point out the interesting phenomenon of that generation having the ability to take on great responsibilities at younger ages than we allow today – which I greatly envy. No one at the top levels of Sesquicentennial planning could expect to be alive for the bicentennial, but those “on the ground,” like me, very well might. I agree with you Kevin that there will be a more diffuse commemoration, but one of the speakers in the video pointed out something I really agree with – this almost negates the value of some fantastic historical strides of the past fifty years. I hope I’m wrong…but I think there such a thing as too diffuse. While I agree that the localities can tailor their commemorations to their communities, I will be very interested to see what, if any, events occur in the non-eastern states. Does anyone have their finger on the pulses of, say, Oregon on this? I’d really be interested to see whether this really has a national interest, or whether it will be something for the eastern states alone.
Sorry about flying off the handle a bit there, Mike. I tend to react poorly to people denigrating “young” scholars for their age alone, and was reading too much into your comment. My bad.
The western question, I think, is an interesting one which I cannot answer. I’m a native New Yorker living in PA / VA, so I’m more in the thick on the right coast. Kevin, do you know anyone out there on the left coast who might have insight?